Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day in Church

(A sermon preached Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, 5/29/2011)

Contrary to the assumptions of many, Memorial Day is not officially a celebration of the church. Unlike Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day (both which I have talked about in the past), it is not on our church calendar, and there is no prayer in our Prayerbook to mark this day. It did not come from the church, nor was it formally adopted by it.

Robert Bellah writes that sociologists have suggested that America has a secular "civil religion" – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. Our American tradition includes an obligation to honor the sacrifices made by our nation to earn our freedom. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion in contrast to that of France was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain it was not tied to a specific denomination like the Church of England. Instead, Americans borrowed selectively from different religious traditions in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two, thus mobilizing deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals. (Civil Religion in America, by Robert Bellah, 1967. Used by Wikipedia)

This cannot completely explain why the church has not officially adopted Memorial Day: after all, the church has taken and adapted plenty of public events and celebrations in the past. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time. Then again, one could argue that every day is a Memorial Day in the church.

Regardless, this morning I want to share with you some Memorial Day history, which comes mostly from the Wikipedia Memorial Day entry:

Our tradition of Memorial Day comes from the time after the Civil War, honoring the soldiers who had died by decorating their graves with flags or flowers. By 1865 the practice of decorating soldiers' graves had become widespread in the North. The first known observance was in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, on October, 1864, and each year thereafter. Similar events followed around the northern states on various scales.

In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, freed enslaved Africans celebrated at the Washington Race Course, today the location of Hampton Park. The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, freedmen exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them in individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for events that included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the ground.

Beginning in 1866 the southern states had their own Memorial Days. The earliest Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the day and attend to local cemeteries.

General John A. Logan may be most responsible for growth of a particular holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic – the organization for Northern Civil War veterans – Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.

There were events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, which had 100,000 members.

The Decoration Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the war – and at first to recall the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation, one closer to their God. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the "baptism of blood" on the battlefield.

By the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone and the speeches praised the soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy. In 1882, the name of Decoration Day was formally changed to Memorial Day in "memory" and 'honor" of those who gave their lives fighting for a common cause, America.

This name, however, did not become more common until after World War II and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.

Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all. The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol the Sunday before Memorial Day. The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who died in war.

There have, however, been a number of the historical problems concerning Memorial Day. Many of the celebrations have included a demonization of whatever is the perceived other side: not just concerning the Civil War, but the world conflicts that have followed. Certain ideologies have upended Memorial Day at different times. Continuing from Wikipedia:

In many southern locations in the 1890s from the consolatory emphasis of honoring soldiers to public commemoration of the Confederate "Lost Cause". Changes in the ceremony's hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South.

By the 1950s, the theme of Memorial Day had become more geared towards American exceptionalism and understood duty to uphold freedom in the world.

There have also been challenges beyond nationalism. The tradition has become permanently linked to sporting events. One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, the auto race has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911, run on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. The Coca-Cola 600 stock car race has been held later the same day since 1961. The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend since 1976.

On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington's Birthday, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. This change is still controversial. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day. (David Mechant, April 28, 2007, "Memorial Day History", in the Wikipedia entry)

While the actual significance of the original date is debatable, it is pretty clear that Memorial Day Weekend’s role as the unofficial start of summer has come to dominate the observance. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, in the vocabulary of many, the phrase “Memorial Day” include the word “sale.”

As I said at the beginning, Memorial Day is not officially a day marked by the Episcopal Church. Certainly remembering those who have given their lives in service is appropriate for church communities to do, and explains why plenty of individual churches celebrate the day.

Perhaps some of what the church has to offer Memorial Day can be found in Paul’s insightful preaching in the Book of Acts this morning (Acts 17:22-31). Paul observes the many religious practices of the Athenians. He does not spend it time condemning what is wrong with their practice. Instead, he lifts up the Athenians pursuit of religious understanding, and building on their creativity and passion, preaches about God “ whom we live and move and have our being”. (Acts 17:28)

Perhaps it is the role of the church to not only help remember what is good in Memorial Day...honoring those who died in service to their country...but to also lift up the day as something more: articulating a vision of a world that so values peoples’ lives as dwelling in God, that violence towards others becomes unacceptable.

Perhaps this is why I find the choir’s anthem this morning, A Song of Peace, so appropriate:

[From the United Methodist Hymnal (Stanzas 1 & 2 by Lloyd Stone, Stanza 3 by Georgia Harkness)]

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine;
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine;
O, hear my song, Thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for (people) in every place;
And yet I pray for my beloved country
The reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our oneness in the Savior,
In spite of differences of age and race.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Joyful Community: Acts and now

(A sermon on Acts 2:42-47 at All Saints' Littleton on 5/15/2011)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

There are a number of insights about the early church to be drawn from this morning’s lesson from Acts.

First, some words of background:

Most people know that The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is the account of the events after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Traditionally, it is understood to haven been written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Scholars still debate both this person’s real identity, and also whether or not the same person actually wrote both books. What is basically agreed on is that it is written as a continuation of Luke’s Gospel (whether by the same person or not), and therefore written with the vision of Jesus presented in Luke’s Gospel (and thus differs with some of the events of the other three Gospels). It also shares a focus with the Gospel of Luke: written primarily for a Greek and Gentile audience, rather than Jewish one.

Dating Acts is highly disputed. Rather than enter this debate, one can only say for sure that it was written after Luke’s Gospel, and that the author must have had access to it. It is also likely that it was completed before the Gospel of John was written. It also appears that the writer did not have access to Paul’s letters that are found in our Epistles.

This is important for us to understand because a great deal of Acts is devoted to Paul. We get most of Paul’s life story from Acts (his vicious persecution of Christians, his dramatic encounter and conversion on the road of Damascus, the changing of his name from Saul to Paul, and his subsequent preaching and teaching throughout the world), and yet we never hear a letter of Paul quoted. In fact, the Book of Acts never even mentions that Paul wrote any letters!!! It should then not be surprising to us to discover that Paul’s letters has a number of discrepancies with the Book of Acts. (Wikipedia)

What The Book of Acts seems to mostly be about is how the early church gets started by those who followed Jesus.

Now let us turn to this morning’s excerpt. This takes place after Peter has given his first, well received sermon.

What is first to be noticed is that the church is experiencing incredible growth. There is a huge jump of people committed: from a community around our size, 120 people according Acts 1:15, to 3000 new people joining by the conclusion of Peter’s sermon in verse 41. (The results of the Holy Spirit and some mighty fine preaching!)

Much is made about verses 44 and 45: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” There are plenty of people who point to this passage as to the way we are supposed to live in community. Others point to this as proof as to why the early church’s vision of living in community is completely unrealistic today. Instead of jumping into this debate (which some would call ideal living, and others would call Communism), the spirit of this verse is that people were dedicated to caring and providing for one another.

Another insight to see is that, while we know that there was some tension and bad behavior between Jews and Christians by the second century, this was not the case initially. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple”, is just one of a number of suggestions that most Jews and emerging Christians got along just fine with one another. The Christian movement within Judaism was initially only seen as a threat by certain leaders: otherwise, there was close relationship between the two groups. (Emerson Powery in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.2, eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 425)

What should be most familiar to all of us in this morning’s passage is the opening verse. We hear the phrasing of this verse in question form at every baptism and confirmation. In the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church, after we finish with our Creedal questions of believing in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are asked 5 critical questions about how we are going to live out our faith. The first one is this:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

And we are to answer: I will, with God’s help.

Taken right from this morning’s passage, it is no stretch to say that we place great value on this verse from Acts, even if few of us know where it comes from.

Quickly, let us consider the pieces found here...

Apostles’ teaching and fellowship: one could consider the impact of teaching and fellowship separately, but I like that they are linked together. Our learning about God...from our exploring of scripture to our observations from life to be done within the bonds of relationships. Nurturing development happens as we study and play together: within times of serious discussion and relaxed banter. We are informed by the relationship that Jesus had not only with his disciples, but with the crowds in general: bonding with the stranger as well as the known friend.

Breaking of the Bread recalls last week’s gospel, where the two men suddenly see Jesus in the stranger they have spent the day with. It refers to not only our Eucharistic action that we gather for each Sunday, but every time we sit and eat with one another: the intimate sharing of a meal, traditionally restricted by culture and class. Breaking of bread, an action Jesus wished for us to see him in, means breaking the barriers we have between each other. It is opening our eyes to see with our mind and heart connected: letting go of what we think we know about people, and seeing more.

Finally, in the prayers we are called, more than anything, to be connected to each other. Our communal prayers each Sunday are an invitation to awareness: to see that our connection to God flows through our connection to others.

All of these lead to a sense of awe and wonder: for the world and each other. When we look closely at everything, we start to see that the sacred is to be found in everything, and everyone. In the community described in The Book of Acts this morning, we are to see a people filled by joy: connected to each other by a common awareness of beauty and mystery that is found when life is focused on God’s constant presence.

Will we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will we see and experience the awe and wonder that defines this precious thing called life?

With God’s help, we will.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May the Fourth be with you...

Today is Star Wars appreciation day. Great mythology to be found in the classic series: highly influenced by Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

As to the origins of this day, here is the Wikipedia link Star Wars Day.

"May the Fourth be with you...."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Unbelieving Thomas

(A sermon preached on John 20:19-31 at All Saints' Episcopal Church on May 1st, 2011)

We talk about the disciples fairly regularly here at church, often remarking how they don’t understand what’s going on and what Jesus is trying to say to them. Sometimes we even mention their successes, which mostly happened after Jesus died: the church did get started, after all.

But one thing I find interesting about the disciples is that their traits and actions have not, for the most part, been incorporated into everyday sayings.

Take Peter, for example. He gets two known personas from the Gospels: he gets nicknamed “the rock” for his tendencies as a leader (and also, for saying things that are dense as a rock). Also, he is greatly known for his denials of Jesus.

And yet, people don’t go around saying “your such a denying Peter.” And if someone calls you a rock: well, there’s all sorts of possibilities as to what they’re saying about you, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say “you’re such a rock like Peter.”

That’s pretty much true for all of the disciples. There are only two exceptions that I know of:

I have heard people be called “Judas”: usually in mock betrayal, and much less often with a real sense of betrayal. Thankfully, for obvious reasons, I think most of us are hesitant to really call someone a Judas.

The other exception is found in this morning’s Gospel: “Doubting Thomas” has made it into our vocabulary.

Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is seldom a good thing. The suggestion usually is that you are stuck in doubt that is misplaced, wrong and hurtful.

The background for this is that many people have grown up with the idea that doubt is something to be avoided...that we are not suppose to question things...that when we question issues of faith, it must mean that our faith is weak.

In fact, it is often suggested that the opposite of faith is doubt.

Ironically, the Greek word for “doubt” is not found in this passage...anywhere. Yes, our NRSV Bible translates Jesus’ words to Thomas as “Do not doubt, but believe.” But that’s not really what the text says.

It’s more like: “And do not be unbelieving but believing.”

Now, you might say that “unbelieving” and “doubt” are about the same thing, but I want to challenge that notion. “Doubt” is questioning something. Doubt is honest searching for answers. Doubt is challenging one’s beliefs in order to understand. Doubt is about taking new discoveries, on both an individual and a world level, and then attempting to understand how it clarifies and challenges previous understandings.

Doubt is not a threat to faith. In reality the reverse is true: doubt and questions help us strengthen our allows our minds and our hearts to grow with new insights and understandings.

“Unbelieving” is different. “Unbelieving” suggests that Thomas is going through something other than doubting or questioning. And it is important that we understand what it is.

In one way, Thomas is just like the other disciples. They are all hiding away behind locked doors. None of them really believed Mary Magdalene when she told them that she’s seen the Lord. It’s only after that they see Jesus that they believe.

So then the disciples go and tell Thomas “We’ve seen the Lord.” And, just like the others, Thomas doesn’t believe words. He even makes an outrageous request: “Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, Thomas is asking for some serious proof. The question, is why? What’s going on here? Why this extreme reaction?

I think the answer can be found in what we know about Thomas. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus decides to go to Bethany to heal Lazarus, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

It’s another extreme reaction, but an understandable one. There was grave danger to Jesus in Bethany: people were already trying to kill him. Thomas knew that there was a good chance that none of them would live after such a trip. Thomas is professing a willingness to follow Jesus into very real danger. This is not someone who lacks faith.

But what has happened since then? In the garden, Thomas nerves got the best of him. He, like the other disciples, was not strong enough to remain with Jesus when he was arrested. Thomas gives in to fear.

And then, in the midst of feeling ashamed of himself, Thomas witnesses the worst thing possible: Jesus’ crucifixion, and the end to all of the hopes and dreams that Jesus had inspired.

Thomas’ heart was broken.

Can you imagine what Thomas was thinking as he walked through the streets? He must have been in pure agony. He must have hated himself right there and then. There was no way to go back: no way to change what he had done.

So imagine what it must have sounded like to Thomas when the disciples came to him, saying that they had seen the Lord...

It was too much to hope for. It was too much to believe. It was like saying that all was forgiven, and Thomas was not in a place where he was able to even consider the possibility of being forgiven.

In this context, we can begin to understand his outrageous claims of touching hands, feet and side. It wasn’t about Thomas doubting. It was about Thomas fearing.

It is fear that is the opposite of faith. It is fear that keeps us from living the way God wants us to live. The events of Holy week had all been about fear: not only did fear cause Thomas and the other disciples to flee, but Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, Caiaphas’ plotting, and the crowd’s anger are all about fear. Even the table, in the garden, and on the cross...has to confront his own fears. Fear is a powerful, undeniable force in the world: whether we’re talking about 1st Century Palestine or 21st Century America.

But the miracle of Easter is that fear is not the end of the story. Jesus lives because he refused to give in to his fear: and brings us new life in faith, hope, and love.

This is what Jesus offers to Thomas, with the words “And do not be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to find life after fear and despair: new life found in hope and love.

And it’s Thomas, in choosing faith instead of fear, who makes the boldest statement found in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God.”

What would it take for us, today, to challenge the fear that presently dominates our world?

What outrageous proof would we require to make us believe that we could end poverty and have economic justice...that we could peacefully address our differences...that we could acknowledge our wrongs and heal our pains....that we could preserve and care for our environment...that we could truly love our neighbors as ourselves?

Our fears tell us that these things are just not possible.

Jesus tells us: “do not be unbelieving, but believing.”


Monday, May 2, 2011

Upon the Death of an Enemy

Powerful blog post by Rabbi Menachem Creditor: "Upon the Death of an Enemy."

Wonderfully expresses the many emotions people are feeling on the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps my favorite moment:

According to a Midrash, when the angels rejoiced at the victory of God and the deliverance of the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, they invited God to join their celebration. God declined, saying, "How can I rejoice when my children are drowning?" God's response, as intuited by our tradition, teaches us that the very people who enslaved and tortured us were still human beings when viewed through sacred eyes.

Here are a few Biblical verses and sayings I've seen on Facebook as well:

"Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice"
(Proverbs 24:17)

"I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord"
(Ezekiel 18:32)

I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked"
(Ezekiel 33:11)

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven."
(Matthew 5:43-44)

The group "The Christian Left" sums it up:

"We rejoice when evil acts end; we do not rejoice when anyone falls."